3 May 2014 — All the pivotal characters in Duncan Jepson’s new Hong Kong crime novel—including its cosmopolitan protagonist—are preoccupied with indignities China has suffered at the hands of foreign powers, from the Opium Wars to a fictional 21st century European debt default.

Emperors Once More is set in near-future Hong Kong, a “formerly fragrant harbour” in decline after its “zenith in early 2013”. The main action occupies the two days leading up to an 18 August 2017 crisis meeting between G8 nations—that is, the West—andso-called “Outreach Five” nations, the most powerful of which is China.

Europe has just defaulted on the debt it owed China, and someone, or some group, is determined to make the continent and all Western powers pay for the debt and every other perceived shame that has been inflicted on China.

The methods of extracting that payment are extremely bizarre, misguided and grisly.

 

The book’s opening, on 17 August, is fashioned after popular Hong Kong noir films. It’s 2am, a typhoon signal eight has been hoisted, and a team of police officers are waiting in Kowloon Tong for Chow, a notorious money launderer in southern China.

Chow has little bearing on the book’s overall East-versus-West, past-versus-future concerns. But the circumstances of his eventual comeuppance introduce the reader to the unorthodox ways of the mainland-born protagonist, Senior Inspector Alex Soong of the Hong Kong Police Anti-Corruption Task Force.

He is Chinese, but out of his element in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong; he is a police officer, but—typical for a crime story—doesn’t work by the book. Soong likes to improvise on and off the job, much like the musicians in the American jazz he loves to listen to. None of this goes over well with his boss, theCaptain, who anyway prefers classical music.

Soong, a New York University graduate, is the son of one of the architects of China’s economic revolution in the 1980s—and the grandson of a man who lost two fingers fighting against the Kuomintang. In the opening scene, he does what he was brought to Hong Kong to do, ­fight corruption. He tells his grandfather and father in a flashback that they fought their battles, for communism and economic growth, respectively, and now his generation has corruption.

It is with this purpose in mind that he disposes of Chow and saves the life of the fraudster’s hostage, a little girl who reminds Soong of the twin sisters his parents gave away under China’s one-child policy.

 

The novel soon casts off its noirish beginnings. By about 8am on that same day, he’s cleaned Chow’s blood off his face and hair, and is getting coffee for his slumbering wife Jun, a “classic Chinese beauty”, and failing to convince her to accompany him to receive a posthumous service award at Hong Kong University on behalf of his father and grandfather.

 

Soon after this moment of genteel calm, Soong’s day starts to get a lot worse. Two Methodist ministers are shot dead outside Citibank Tower, no gunman in sight. And, a little later, Soong is the first police officer on the scene of a quintuple homicide a Kowloon warehouse, near, not incidentally, the site of the 1967 leftist riots.

He spends the rest of the book trying to persuade fellow officers, including his mysterious Eurasian partner Michael De Suza, that the murders are all connected.

An enigmatic and unidentified man, who is still on the scene of the multiple homicide in Kowloon when Soong arrives, provides an important clue. As a gun-carrying Soong feels his way around a dark container in the warehouse, the man says,

 

First opium, then religion, then political ideology, and now debt. First US debt and now European … must we consume every Western poison?

 

Soong, whose grandfather walked on the Long March, has of course heard this line of anti-Western reasoning before and so have many of the book’s other central characters.

This very biased take on Chinese history guides the protagonist as he learns more about the nation’s past in order to preserve its future against his determined foes—who are also, strangely, trying to recruit him.

Jepson interrupts Soong’s story with several short sections, offset in bolder typeface, depicting an unnamed man as he gradually grows more xenophobic, especially after his son by a half-Chinese woman turns out looking more Western than Asian. The two narratives gradually and satisfyingly come together.

 

The novel, though a page-turner at heart, takes on a much bigger subject than the classic whodunit. The plot forces the characters to ask how it’s possible to acknowledge the past without being burdened by it and illustrates how a misinterpretation of history can be lethal.

It’s evident throughout that Jepson has a wider audience in mind than the Asian expat scene and provides a sort of handholding through contemporary and historical Chinese themes:  this broader target readership presumably needs to be told, for example, that Chinese has simplified, traditional and ancient characters.

The novel’s topic is also opportunistic, tapping into interest in China’s increasingly important role in the world. Nevertheless, a glimpse at how heavily history weighs on modern China—however much dramatized here—is helpful to a broader understanding.

But divulging hundreds of years of history in a future-set novel written for a relatively novice audience puts a narrative under a lot of strain. If this entertaining book has a weakness, it is that its scale of show-versus-tell is a little off balance. Getting readers up to speed about Chinese history helps explain why the villains are doing what they’re doing, but it also retards the book’s pace, and one imagines that, for some readers, pace is paramount. For others, however, the opportunity to learn a little about the Opium Wars or the anti-British riots in Hong Kong outside of fusty history books or spotty Wikipedia might be compensation enough.

Jepson leavens these weightier questions about

China’s history—like the discussions about Boxer Rebellion, which is central to why the ministers died—with the addition of the beautiful and flirty Professor Yi from Harvard. Mainland-born Yi teaches Soong about China’s long and painful relationship with Christianity, that “Western poison”, and in the vitalfinal quarter of the book, while Yi and Soong sit boringly in traffic, she tells the officer about the Boxer rebellion. What she has to say is no doubt interesting, but the story, like Soong’s ’68 Ford Mustang, getsstuck. Nevertheless, in the end, she helps him arrive at important conclusion.

 

When Soong is fighting to prevent another murder, this time at the G8 crisis summit at the Hong Kong Convention Centre, he shares this insight with his now-known enemy

 

The anger you see in them is not about how the West treats us, it’s about how we treat each other. It’s been like that, for five thousand years.

 

But this wouldn’t be an amusing detective novel, expected to be the first in a series, if wise words alonewere enough to save the day—violence, thankfully, ensues.

 

http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/new/?ID=1844#